Forging alliances

Arthur Slepian talks with the ‘Magazine’ about his organization, A Wider Bridge, and its efforts to connect North American LGBT individuals to their Israeli kin.

Arthur Slepian poses in front of the Knesset with other Wider Bridge participants. (photo credit: DOR SITHAKOL)
Arthur Slepian poses in front of the Knesset with other Wider Bridge participants.
(photo credit: DOR SITHAKOL)
When Vanity Fair splashed Caitlyn Jenner on its cover early this month, the Western world gasped in shock and surprisingly, for the most part, celebrated and embraced what it saw.
While former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner’s story of transition indicates the shifting sands of tolerance for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), one need not look across the ocean for progress in accepting this community – as here in Israel, we are already a step ahead of the game.
June’s Tel Aviv Pride Parade, whose theme was embracing its transgender members, shows that the Jewish state is on the forefront of embracing its LGBT culture.
The Magazine caught up with Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel nonprofit that seeks to form alliances between LGBT persons in North America and Israel. He was here earlier this month for his organization’s first leadership summit, titled “Forty Years of Pride,” which coincided with the parade.
Slepian founded his organization due to his observations of a major disconnect between his gay peers and how they viewed Israel.
“[There was a] sense of frustration I found in the LGBT and Jewish circles that I was part of, in which Israel had become something you either didn’t talk about at all or we argued about,” he explained. “It was just a political debate about how one felt about the occupation or settlements or a divided Jerusalem, and I wanted a deeper, human connection.”
He is quick to clarify that he does not consider the organization a Zionistic one. Despite its pro-Israel orientation, he felt that an apolitical organization, focused on the cultural value of Israel as separate from the conflict, was lacking.
“We’re not trying to be the LGBT version of AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] or JStreet,” he said. “I felt the need for a more moderate, more pro-Israel voice from the LGBT community, since I felt it wasn’t being represented…. There needed to be more people in the US who understood Israel and the amazing activists and artists who are doing great work here.”
When the Bar Noar shooting occurred in 2009, with two killed at the Tel Aviv gay youth center, Slepian felt a glimmer of sympathy from his peers, but thought such pro-Israel sentiment shouldn’t only arise when tragedy strikes.
That is because, in his view, there is much the US can learn from Israel and its treatment of its LGBT members.
For example, Israel has proven it can successfully integrate LGBT people into the army and provide a platform for a thriving and powerful religious voice, without diminishing the potency of its queer one.
The Magazine’s interview took place immediately after Slepian spent the day in Jerusalem, where he saw members of the transgender community address the Knesset. When asked if he thought such a meeting could take place in the US Congress or Senate, he shook his head.
“I guess I’m hopeful, but I think the transgender issue is still a tough one for a lot of people to understand….
With Congress controlled by the Republican Party, I think it’ll be a while,” he lamented.
On the cultural side, seeing multidimensional gay characters on TV and film is the norm for the Israeli entertainment industry, while – despite some exceptions – the US is still lagging behind.
“If you turn on Israeli TV, there’s a gay character on every show; there’s better queer cinema coming out of Israel than the US. I think there’s this critical mass of hip, gay culture here that feeds upon itself,” he contended.
However, since many members of America’s LGBT community are liberal, there are many within the community who disagree with A Wider Bridge’s mission and accuse it of “pinkwashing” the gay experience in Israel – all for the purpose of being part of the country’s hasbara (public diplomacy) machine.
Proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement have wasted no time adding their voices to that claim. Slepian is worried that such assertions can wrongfully influence LGBT members interested in finding out more about the gay experience in Israel.
“Part of why we wanted to have this conference here is to put the Israeli LGBT community at the center of the global conversation, because I think they have so much to add to it. I think it often feels like there are parts of the LGBT community around the world that sort of want to make the Israeli LGBT community the outcasts,” he said.
Several of the speakers who arrived for the summit were under pressure not to come, but none of them capitulated.
“I don’t think anybody – we’ve had 25 people traveling on our trip, which started a week ago, and another 100 people who are here – will tell you that they’ve been pinkwashed,” Slepian maintained.
A Wider Bridge has striven to provide an array of voices that encapsulate the gay experience in Israel.
As such, leaders were exposed to topics ranging from meeting a gay Palestinian man in the West Bank to seeing a kibbutz in the North welcome its first transgender family into its community.
Slepian’s mission comes from a very personal place. As a young Jewish man, he didn’t feel Judaism had a place for him when he decided to come out as a gay man. It wasn’t until he became a member of a LGBT-friendly synagogue in San Francisco that he began to reacquaint himself with his Jewish roots.
“And there, for the first time, I thought I could be my whole self – an openly gay, Jewish man,” he recounts.
“I think that’s what most gay Jews are looking for,” he said, adding that he hopes his organization can at least serve that purpose. “We’re not trying to present Israel as some paradise. I think the message we’re trying to send is that for every challenge Israel faces, there are some amazing people on the ground trying to make things better.”